Christian worship has always been a “high-touch” affair. “Greet one another with a holy kiss,” Paul told worshipers (2 Cor 13:12). Peter urged those gathered for the reading of his letter, “Greet one another with the kiss of love” (1 Pet 5:14). Accordingly, from the second century on we find Christians exchanging signs of mutual affection and reconciliation before they go to the Table.
I think that’s a good thing.
There’s a genuine artistry to the way the classical liturgy makes the passing of the peace a part of worship. In the fourth century one of the great voices of the ancient church, Cyril of Jerusalem, explained why believers exchange a kiss of peace just before they approach the Lord’s Table.
Next let us embrace one another and give the kiss of peace. Do not think this is the kiss which friends are accustomed to give one another when they meet in the marketplace. This is not such a kiss. This unites souls to one another and destroys all resentment. The kiss is a sign of the union of souls.
That Was Awkward
Recently, an advice columnist responded to a complaint about being forced to greet fellow attendees in church. The columnist countered that in a world as disjointed as ours, we should be grateful that the church tries to bring people together. I agree! But I also feel the sense of artificiality and of being put upon when there’s a “meet & greet” that is no different than what I might experience at the Chamber of Commerce.
To me it’s a wonderful thing to be asked to look my neighbor full in the face and wish him or her Christ’s peace. That makes me (along with all my fellow believers) a priest who offers God’s healing touch. Respectfully, though, it’s a turn-off to be told to smile, turn to the person next to me and say, essentially, “How ya doin’?”
The first act invites Christ into the moment and makes us family; the second makes two awkward strangers even more awkward about not knowing each other. At least the Chamber of Commerce encourages us to exchange business cards.
When I coached Little League, a friend and “master coach” gave me some good advice: “Kids this age have too many challenges, and not enough encouragement. Every practice you should go to each player, put a hand on their shoulder, look them in the eyes, and say, ‘I’m glad you’re on this team. You make a big difference for us.’”
When I come to worship I never know what sort of pain my neighbor is in, how much it can help him or her to be touched and to be reminded: whatever the deficit, whatever the enmity, whatever the trouble, whatever the funk, Christ speaks his peace into it.
Benjamin Barber writes that we live in a world split between the centripetal force of McWorld (the forced unification of a global market) and the centrifugal force of Jihad (the fracturing of the human race around tribal loyalties). We all, I think, feel those wounds in one way or another.
Followers of Christ believe that if there’s any hope for overcoming the evil twin forces of McWorld and Jihad, it’s living and telling the subversive story of God’s invasion of the planet through his Son. In Jesus, as the song goes, “Heaven’s peace and perfect justice kissed a guilty world in love.” When we pass the peace of Christ to one another, heaven’s peace becomes embodied once again. Then at the Table we taste how Jesus even now “unites souls to one another and destroys all resentment.”
Some of us are in churches where it might be worth opening up the following conversation:
“Are we so respectful of people’s privacy, of their personal space, that we miss the opportunity to let them know that this is a place—no, the place— where the lonely, the estranged, the fearful, and the broken, can be touched and can hear that God has come near to them?”
Others of us are in churches where it might be worth opening up a different conversation:
“When’s the last time we asked people to think about what a holy and healing thing it is they do when they offer the Lord’s peace?”